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In the News

News | June 20, 2022

Militarised approach to policing peaceful protests increasing risk of violence: UN expert

By Clement N. Voule

The world is bearing witness to a continued shrinking of civic space and increased human rights violations in the context of peaceful protests, as governments across the globe securitise their approach to compounding crises, a UN expert said today.

“Rather than seeing peaceful protest as a democratic means of participation, too often governments resort to repression to suppress protests and silence people’s voices,” said Clément N. Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association in a report presented to the Human Rights Council.

The expert said a global trend towards militarising protest management had led to an escalation of violence and human rights abuses. Governments around the world were deploying the military and using military-style tactics to quash peaceful protests, while also using military courts to prosecute peaceful protestors, his report said.

The Special Rapporteur warned that this approach was resulting in an escalation of violence and tensions, human rights abuses, and increased impunity in the context of peaceful protests.

“Militarised policing of protests has a particularly intimidating effect on women protesters who sometimes face sexual abuse as a weapon to silence them,” Voule said.

The report highlights disturbing trends in response to peaceful protests in crisis situations, including the widespread stigmatisation of protest movements. “States portray protests as threats to stability and as a trigger of crises. These are then used as a pretext to clamp down on protest movements,” the UN expert said.

The Special Rapporteur’s report was deeply critical of the growing use of unlawful and excessive force while policing protests, including the use of lethal force.

“Blanket ‘shoot to kill’ orders are being issued by authorities in response to protests. Less lethal weapons have also been misused to inflict serious injuries and death to protesters. These violations must immediately stop and instead States must facilitate peaceful protests,” Voule said.

He called on States to ensure people are not persecuted, unlawfully arrested, criminalized, tortured, killed or harmed for exercising their fundamental freedom to peaceful assembly.

The Special Rapporteur said the abuse of emergency measures by States to impose prolonged and excessive restrictions to suppress peaceful protests had become commonplace, and increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Imposing a state of emergency, does not give a freehand to States to violate human rights. Regardless of the crisis they are currently facing, even during a state of emergency or war, States are bound by their human rights obligations. Where the right to peaceful assembly is fully enjoyed, peaceful, democratic, rights-respecting societies thrive,” the expert said.

Voule’s report said emergency measures taken by States to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic had added another layer of restrictions that were widely used by Governments to clamp down on dissent. “It is through protest that people express their grievances in times of crisis, to raise awareness about the impact these crises have in their lives. Protest is an exercise of their fundamental rights,” the expert said.

The Special Rapporteur urged States to engage with protestors, hear their concerns and address root causes of the crises. By creating an enabling environment for peaceful protests and listening to legitimate demands of protestors, governments can adopt more responsive and just policies and can reach inclusive, participatory and peaceful resolutions of crisis situations, the expert said.

The Special Rapporteur also presented two other reports to the Human Rights Council at this session. In his second report, Voule explored the impact of restricting access to civil society’s financial resources on its ability to operate. His third report on the findings of his official visit to Niger in December 2021, focused on the country’s complete ban on protests since 2018 on grounds of public order. He called on authorities in Niger to restore dialogue with civil society and political parties on security, economic, social and environmental issues currently facing the country.